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You Are What You Eat (and That Changes Everything)

A sermon on John 6:51-58

There are some weeks when I think I should just give the children’s sermon and then sit down, because the children’s sermon says it all.

This week is one of those weeks. That silly phrase I talked about with the kids – you are what you eat ­– is often used as a rebuke, or as a warning about what we eat, but actually it is an incredible promise of HOPE. If we are what we eat, and each week we gather at the altar to consume the body of Christ, given for us… Then, that’s what we ARE! We are the body of Christ. We are transformed by God’s gift in the sacrament; our very nature is changed. Thanks be to God.

Of course, since “you are what you eat” is not exactly canonical scripture, I suppose I really should say a little more about why I think that IS the promise of today’s gospel reading.

I have spoken before about how this community has deepened my awareness of the power of the communion table. You all have taught me, as seminary never did, why this meal is much MORE that the “symbolic” interpretation that I learned in my childhood faith. You have taught me by the spiritual hunger that you bring to the table; and you have taught me by the passion with which you describe its importance to you. You all have taught me to be so, so glad that the words I offer in the sermon are NOT the most important thing that happens on a Sunday morning. Because they could never be more important than offering you Jesus.

This week I began to delve into the story of another woman who experienced the life-changing power of the communion meal. Sara Miles, in her spiritual memoir Take This Bread, describes her own unlikely conversion from an adamantly secular life into a life of faith and service, and she describes the sacrament as being central to this conversion.

Here’s how she describes the initiating moment:

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything.”[1]

Miles’ first communion really did change everything for her. It brought her to faith, and it upended her life. I haven’t finished the book yet, but from what I have read so far, I know that her conversion challenged her most important relationships: her family and her social circle all shared her earlier skepticism, if not outright antagonism toward, the Christian church.

Her faith journey then brought her into relationship with an incredibly broad array of humanity: from day laborers, to millionaires, to politicians, to schizophrenics, to bishops. All drawn together by what she describes as: “a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and outcasts are honored.”[2]

Those encounters came through the reorientation of her life’s work – from war zone journalist into a ministry of feeding that has organized new food pantries all over her city. All because she found a connection between the physical hunger of people all around her and the spiritual hunger that drew her to the Lord’s table.

There are two things that I find especially powerful about this story, as an illumination of today’s gospel text.

The first is the power of hunger over skepticism.

There is certainly a vein of skepticism throughout the sixth chapter of John, including today’s reading. This week the skepticism takes the form of doubting “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)

I think we can all understand that objection. It sounds utterly preposterous! First- eww! Second – Jesus only has one human body, so there wouldn’t be enough to go around. Third - how can that possibly help anyway? How can eating his flesh do anything good for us, much less give us eternal life? It doesn’t make sense.

That phrase – it doesn’t make sense ­­– is one of skepticism’s most powerful weapons. It pulls us up short with the threat that we will be made fools of. And after a week like this past week – when national news of abuse in one branch of the Christian church reminds us that brokenness and betrayal are realities in every expression of the Christian church – trusting a nonsensical claim can feel like a pretty big risk.

And while that’s not the focus of this sermon, let me just say that we in the church CANNOT be party to cover-ups nor can we shield abusers in the name of protecting the church against skepticism. It’s wrong and it doesn’t work. We are a faith that teaches confession, and we need to practice that. Skepticism will always see the hypocrisy and the reasons not to believe. There’s no manipulating skeptics.

But there is something that can overcome skepticism: hunger.

Sara Miles had a hundred reasons to be skeptical – many of them supplied by the church – and in the world that she inhabited more than one person found her conversion utterly foolish… but she was hungry. As she describes:

“It turned out that the prerequisite for conversion wasn’t knowing how to behave in a church, or having a religious vocabulary or an a priori ‘belief’ in an abstract set of propositions: It was hunger, the same hunger I’d always carried.”[3]

When we are hungry: when we know that our life is ebbing away because it needs a nourishment that we don’t have, we don’t worry about looking like fools. We don’t worry about the hypocrisy of the people offering us the bread, and we don’t worry about the mechanics of how our food comes to us. We just know that we need it.

The second lesson in Miles’s story is how communion genuinely can change us.

For the past several weeks we been exploring what Jesus says about this change. We’ve wrestled with the tension between works and trust; with the intimacy of Jesus’s claim to be our bread; with the challenge of overcoming our own expectations and recognizing what eternal life looks like in the middle of the mess.

Today Jesus finally makes it clear that this trust, and intimacy, and eternal life happens because, in a sense, we are what we eat. “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.” (John 6:56).

The invitation to eat Christ’s body and blood, which we hear each time we approach the communion table, is an invitation not just to follow his way, but to actually take him into ourselves. To have him abide in us.

In the church we tend to hear a lot about us abiding in Christ – about our habits and attitudes being reformed because we are drawn into Christ’s life. But Jesus doesn’t stop there with his promise. He says that he abides in us too! He takes up residence in us. We can’t walk away from Jesus because he goes with us!

And, of course, that changes everything! When Jesus abides in us he changes our perspective about ourselves AND everyone else. That’s why Miles’ conversion started at the communion table but didn’t end there. She writes that “as conversion continued, relentlessly challenging my assumptions about religion and politics and meaning, God forced me to deal with all kinds of other people.”[4]

Miles' reckoning with her own hunger for God lead her to reckon with the many kinds of hunger, including physical hunger, that she found in other people. It changed her whole life because once Jesus took up residence in her she couldn’t just go on doing what she had always done. She had eternal life inside her and that changed the way she saw the world and the way she responded to it.

The phrase “this changes everything” has been resonating in the background of my attention for many months now. It was the theme for last month’s ELCA Youth Gathering, so my inbox and my news feed have been generously sprinkled since May or June, with posts about the planned speakers and activities, and stories from colleagues who participated, and accounts of life-transforming encounters on the ELCA blog.

And then Crossroads adopted the same theme for this summer’s youth camp, so my children have spent one and two weeks, respectively, exploring the way that our faith changes their lives.

I’ve been hearing this phrase for months and finally, this week, the gospel has challenged me to remember that I actually believe it. To recognize that when I receive his body and blood in the bread and wine I am receiving something that really does change everything. Something that changes me and changes the way I engage with the world around me.

Sara Miles has written down her story of this conversion, and I encourage you all to read that story along with me if you are interested. But more importantly, I encourage you to tell your own story – your story of how Jesus comes to you in bread and wine; of how you abide in Jesus and he abides in you; of how this changes everything. Maybe you haven’t thrown over your career to start a movement of food pantries (or to become a pastor), and maybe that’s because that’s not what Jesus has called you to do.

But Jesus has called you into eternal life here and now. And when we live that life, it will change everything.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Sara Miles, Take This Bread, New York: Ballantine Books, 2007, p. xii.

[2] Ibid, p.xii.

[3] Ibid p. xiv.

[4] Ibid.

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